The Colbert Report and White Privilege: Satire I don’t believe in

April 3, 2014

By Michelle Medina


I am a fan of The Daily Show. I am a fan of Jon Stewart and his cultural resistance to the status quo and holders of social power.  In fact, I watch his show religiously with my daughter.  We anticipate the next instance where he will speak truth to power.  A show known for its diversity of comedic writers that has made a name for itself through satirizing racism, sexism, and class-based ideologies, The Daily Show advances discourses. The Daily Show draws our attention to political perspectives from the margins of America.

However, I am not a fan of The Colbert Report. Although both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are on Comedy Central, the two have very different ideas of what is humor and satire. My daughter often asks me why I don’t appreciate Colbert’s work, since they seem to follow the same script: host behind desk covering the news with satire. “I don’t find him funny,” I would answer without analyzing why, until the recent Twitter campaign #CancelColbert and the ensuing backlash against the woman behind it.

Colbert’s bigoted character, with his regurgitation of racist and conservative banter has always been off-putting; for me, he is not funny or enjoyable to listen to or laugh at.  Sure his jokes may be met with applause.  And yes, I intellectually understand his ‘aim’ and his “intent,” but his humor falls flat for me.

Much like Archie Bunker’s character in All In The Family’s, it’s creator Norman Lear was a proud liberal, who hoped the American audience of the 70s would embrace Archie Bunker’s character but reject his beliefs. Americans did embrace Archie Bunker by the droves with more then 60 percent of the TV viewing public tuning in weekly to watch the nation’s “lovable racist” use slurs like “coons” “spics” and “fags.” As Emily Nussbaum writes, Archie Bunker “managed to defy his creator, with a “Frankenstein”-like audacity.” America’s most beloved character of all time is a foaming at the mouth bigot who purportedly spotlighted the evils of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Yet, “Audiences liked Archie,” noted Saul Austerlitz. “Archie was TV royalty because fans saw him as one of their own.”

While its often noted that comedy is a vehicle for change; it also works to facilitate stagnation.  Humor acts as a catharsis for many people’s internalized prejudices that can’t be freely expressed in ‘polite society’ but can be expressed in the socially acceptable medium of laughter (‘because we didn’t mean it’). Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled highlighted how jokes and humor are never neutral or innocuous but poignant weapons; that laughter is conditioned by social norms that we collectively believe in. Liking Archie, under the shroud of humor, allowed cultures of whiteness to feel guiltless as they affirmed racist, misogynistic and homophobic violence and beliefs.

Creating a hateful and immoral character endearing is not new if we think about what Nussbaum points out as an American tradition ‘to regard the antihero as a hero.’  If someone dares to spotlight a violent culture that normalizes the bullying of minorities and women, well you best beware of the wrath of those asked to self reflect. Nussbaum notes:

Some of the most passionate fans of The Sopranos fast-forwarded…to freeze-frame Tony strangling a snitch with electrical wire…I labeled these viewers “bad fans,” and the responses I got made me feel as if I’d poured a bucket of oil onto a flame…Truthfully, my haters had a point: who wants to hear that they’re watching something wrong?

Amid the longstanding debate about the potential and limitations of comedy in fostering justice, many have defended Colbert, suggesting that the Twitter post was taken out of context and if one goes to see the show in its context it makes perfect sense. The tweet and the joke were both insulting depictions of Asians and Asian Americans and trotted out one of the most tired and unfunny jokes about Asian accents although greeted to raucous laughter.

As Jay Caspian Kang notes,

There’s a long tradition in American comedy of dumping tasteless jokes at the feet of Asians and Asian-Americans that follows the perception that we will silently weather the ridicule. If I were to predict which minority group the writers of a show like “The Colbert Report” would choose for an edgy, epithet-laden parody, I’d grimace and prepare myself for some joke about rice, karate, or broken English. The resulting discomfort has nothing to do with the intentions of the joke or the political views of the people laughing at it. Even when you want to be in on the joke—and you understand, intellectually, that you are not the one being ridiculed—it’s hard not to wonder why these jokes always come at the expense of those least likely to protest.

Much like MADtv’s “comedic” depiction of Miss Swan, whose broken English and heavy accent directly imply her inherit stupidity, Colbert’s white racial humor panders to the American pleasure of laughing at minorities. In this most recent case, the question of Native American mascots was the mere vehicle to give white audiences permission to mock another minority group guiltlessly and even ‘for a good cause’.

One has to ask whether the audience’s amusement at Colbert’s squinty-eye-impression and broken accent is good ol’ fashion racism or the laughter garnered from the audience is from an elevated understanding of the complexities of racism and its daily microaggressions experienced by members of the AAPI community. Perhaps Colbert’s caricature triggered laughter out of an understanding of the historical racism that has been part of the American Way since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first and only time an entire ethnic group was not allowed to step on American soil. Perhaps the audience was laughing about the public shaming of Lorde for dating a man considered less masculine, less desirable and overall sexless because of his Asian ethnicity or the fact that Asian women silently make up the vast majority of women in modern day slavery in America, or perhaps it was the Japanese American internment camps or Vincent Chin, whose murder in 1982 garnered his killers no jail time and a fine of $3,780 dollars in exchange for his life and their hate crime.

Still many have argued that The Colbert Report’s mocking of Asians is not racist or even racial (as evidenced by this article in Jezebel and HuffPost Josh Zepps’ recent coverage and attack on Park), but rather a noble attempt at saving a ‘more deserving’ marginalized group.  If the aim was to denounce the R***kins mascot, Colbert failed miserably.  Yes, it may be an attempt at satire but it failed to deliver a transformative or progressive message and only normalized the historical mascot-making of Asians in American popular culture.

Colbert’s impersonation of stereotypical ‘Asian-face’ and speech is not only hurtful but also violent given its material consequences. In 1992, D. L. Rubin’s experimental study divided students into two groups of white listeners and asked them to rate a 4 minute audio lecture of the exact same speaker with the only difference between the two groups being that one group was shown a picture of a white woman and told she was the speaker while the other was shown a picture of an East Asian woman. The listeners who believed that the speaker was Asian claimed to hear a “foreign accent” and had difficulty understanding her.  Despite hearing the exact same audio, Rubin’s study highlighted how people feel less responsibility to listen to Asian voices (and thus perspectives) based on our latent stereotypes that we undoubtedly receive from popular culture. Thus, it’s hard not to think about how Colbert further contributes to the mentality that believes Asian Americans are not worthy to be heard, especially if they aren’t making us laugh.

The blurry line between Colbert’s character and the privilege that it hides behind is convenient. “It wasn’t me, I am not racist,” Colbert claimed, in earnest this week because it was just a joke after all. He’s just playing a part. “It’s not real.” But for Suey Park and countless others, it has been all too real.   Evidenced by the racist comments, efforts to publicly expose Suey Park’s personal information, rape and death threats, this “good and fun humor” has been anything but good fun and a joke, it’s been terrorizing, its been traumatic and it has been a weapon.

“Based on the hundreds of slur-laden, misogynistic, and violent tweets hurled at me by Colbert fanboys and ‘feminists’ over the last 23 or so hours, no, these terms are not post-racial props for ironic humor,” says Christine Yang. “They’re current, 100% earnest, and still just as painful to endure and being used by the same scores of Americans watching and defending Colbert.”  Although Colbert and his fans have persistently argued that he is “under attack,” to be the true victim, reality paints a different picture. Presumably, neither he nor his fans have received death threats.

Yang, a social activist and graduate student who is currently working on a Master in Social Work focusing on trauma, was one of many that received rape and death threats on twitter:

The prevailing argument in defense of Colbert’s usage of ‘Ching Chong Ding Dong’ states that the intent behind it was to jab at Dan Snyder. But where in the imagery does the intended target appear? Was there really no other way for him [Colbert] to make his point and also be funny, without endorsing the slurs that have been used earnestly against me, literally throughout the entire last 23 hours? I’m wondering why we’re so concerned about intent, while completely denying and erasing [its] impact.  Colbert not only dragged into the conversation yet another marginalized group, but he used slurs that force many of us to relive the violence and shame to which we’ve been subjected our entire lives.

This has been commonplace. Colbert’s defenders have dismissed the criticism and instead ridiculed, mocked, and demonized those engaged in these critiques. For example, HuffPost Live host Josh Zepps called Park’s opinion “stupid” on his show.  Zepps silencing of Parks is but one example of the many ways that communities of color continue to be demonized for  “whining like victims” when speaking truth to power.  This exchange is one of many examples of how the #socialmediasilencers have sought to punish Suey Park and others.  As noted by Brittney Cooper, “People implied that “Asian Americans were just being hypersensitive and overreacting to something designed actually to help…If Colbert had used the N-word instead to prove his point about Natives, we would have been outraged. And we would have seen #CancelColbert as the only appropriate response.”

Even as Colbert situated himself as the one “under attack” this week, he is the highly paid privileged white man on TV whose focus rests with pleasing his audience. An audience that is laughing at his racist misogynistic character and in many ways, living vicariously through him, sharing more of the beliefs of Colbert’s character than they are likely to admit openly.  Evidenced by the rape and death threats and the blind defense of Colbert by many white feminists and liberal white men, Park and Yang’s points on white supremacy, misogyny and racism, although pointed to as ridiculous, have been proven more right than ever.

The Colbert Report doesn’t depart far from the historical traditions of white American entertainment to mock and laugh at minorities, perpetuating systems of social oppression, from the minstrel shows to characters like Archie Bunker and Colbert. Racist white characters like the one on The Colbert Report will always be in demand in America, especially if it’s possible to package it in “good” politics from the mouth of ‘a white savior’.  If you don’t know why Dave Chappelle walked away from a lucrative career as a stand-up comic after watching a white man in the audience laugh “way too hard” at a joke, I encourage you to find out why.  We as audience members and viewers are accountable for whom we are laughing at and why we are conditioned to think it’s funny because it’s just too easy in America today to say, “I’m not racist! So shut up and let me continue to be racist because it’s fun!”


Michelle Medina is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. Graduate of Smith College and Fulbright alum, Medina is currently living in Casablanca with her daughter and writes about intersections of race, religion and gender.





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13 Responses to The Colbert Report and White Privilege: Satire I don’t believe in

  1. CG on April 3, 2014 at 5:34 pm

    If we are going to be concerned and address the limits of parody, and satire in relation to discussing racism, we also need to attend to a politics of minstrelsy, that US pop culture demands, and it would seem includes a complacency on the part of many non-white comics and performers.

    One critical question is when does satire fail – when the matter of the joke is racist, or offensive on a variety of levels? More pressing it would seem is who do we imagine has the “right” to parody racism, in this moment?

    • ESM on April 4, 2014 at 1:11 am

      CG said “we also need to attend to a politics of minstrelsy, that US pop culture demands, and it would seem includes a complacency on the part of many non-white comics and perfirmers” Really?!? You obviously don’t understand the power dynamics that perpetuate racist stereotypes in service of white supremacy. You don’t lay blame for the rigged marketplace that promotes and profits from this cultural disenfranchisement at the feet of the oppressed, minstrel or not.
      Have the courage to point your finger at the powerful!

  2. Paul Thomas on April 4, 2014 at 3:03 pm

    I have felt the same issues with Colbert:

    The Education Celebrity Tour: Legend of the Fall, Pt. II

  3. Bill Hutchinson on April 4, 2014 at 8:56 pm

    You’ve hit the nail right on the head.
    Too often do people hide their racism behind a cloak of humor, and those who resist are labeled as prudes for not getting the joke.

    Thank you.

  4. Xad on April 4, 2014 at 10:57 pm

    Just so my opinion doesn’t get trashed, i’ll start off by stating that i am a person you people would put in the box of “person of colour”. Unlike you and many who have criticised Colbert, i have actually watched the show right from the beginning, watched him when he was on the Daily Show and now watch them both religiously; i find it quite strange that you don’t watch the show but somehow you’re an expert on what he supposedly represents. To see Stephen so rattled over what happened was pretty sad and to hear him have to utter the words “i am not a racist” OUT of character was even more so.

    To me, the show is hilarious. It is a cathartic experience as it mocks the unbelievably horrible news media outlets which are the real perpetrators of racism, bigotry, hatred and outright stupidity and that’s not just restricted to FoxNews or Television. As for his asian character (which comes in the form of an old video clip from many years ago), it’s not pretending to be acceptable, it’s supposed to be extremely racist that’s the whole point, anyone who watches the show knows why this is and for those who don’t, or just can’t comprehend the humour, Stephen Colbert is a character himself, he’s an incredibly narrow-minded, ultra-conservative, over the top, really stupid, emotional, temperamental right wing nut job. So when he plays an old clip of his very racist asian character, he’s not doing it from a place of “it’s ok to do stereotypical racist characters”, but rather, the Colbert character is so oblivious to his racism (or white privilege as you would call it i guess) and narrow mindedness that he is the only person in the room that think’s it’s OK and in doing so, pointing out the racism of the person who his story is covering at the time because the point is, his ching-chong-ding-dong is so racist that in fact that person his story is covering is also incredibly racist even though he will at the time be sarcastically defending the subject of the story and claiming that they are not racist either. That’s sarcasm, extremely easy, plain, blunt sarcasm. Sarcasm, the very thing Jon Stewart also employs to great effect.

    People who cannot comprehend the Colbert humour need to turn their television off, because you are just waiting to be offended over something and end up harming the people you think you’re helping. You want to see racism and bigotry, turn over to the actual news channels and listen to what some of the commentators say then maybe write about those instead of jumping on the opportunistic bandwagon against someone who is using sarcasm and satire to speak out against racism and bigotry.

    The Colbert Report has done FAR more for the betterment of minorities and fighting racism and bigotry than a large percentage of the people who jumped on the #cancelcolbert bandwagon put together. To see people admit to not watching the show and then claim to know exactly what the show is about, even go as far as to say he’s racist and his show should be cancelled, is ridiculous, so ridiculous in fact that it almost seems to be a character exhibiting the same level of oblivious stupidity that the Colbert character does.

    Finally, having skimmed through Ms. Suey Parks twitter feed, seems like she’s a bit of a racist herself. You don’t combat racism by turning into a racist yourself, which seems to have happened with her. The only people she has any affect on are self-labelled liberals who will fall over themselves to prove they are not racist. The people who need to be enlightened and rid of their racism are the same people who will see the hypocrisy of someone like Suey Parks and only find it as a reinforcement of their hateful feelings and convince them of the us vs them mentality not only existed but becoming stronger. As for hateful people on Twitter, that has nothing to do with Stephen, take that up with Twitter or the actual people posting the offensive comments. Twitter is full of those types of people who, ironically, are just as opportunistically waiting to jump on someone much like Suey Parks and her gang jumped when they saw their opportunity.

    As for bringing the N-word into this whole conversation, well that’s just pathetic and shows how low some people will go. If you think the N-word is on par with ching-chong-ding-dong then you need to question your own racism and question as to why you’re so completely oblivious to the brutal history of racism towards black people in America. To put those on the same level is to trivialise and demean the kind of racism that resulted in black people being treated worse than animals not so long ago and over 5 million being killed as a result. It’s one thing to find analogies, but don’t use one that only shows your wilful ignorance about basic history or a lack of common-sense.

    Also, if you watch the Daily Show as religiously as you claim, then you would know that Jon Stewart has once used the N word in it’s full form in front of his very shocked audience and it was not bleeped and instead aired uncensored. Were you just as offended then? Did you support a #cancelstewart movement then?

    This who anti-Colbert saga was yet another step backwards in the fight against racism. Thanks phoney liberals who will stretch and manipulate anything to re-frame it like you see it. Stephen has been a fighter of racism from when he was a foetus in his mother’s womb when she attended the Martin Luther King Rally and he is still continuing his mother’s legacy while adding a large dose of brilliant comedy, don’t tar that just because he is a man and happens to be white.

    • Sean on April 6, 2014 at 6:03 am

      A great rebuttal! I planned on giving a similar response, but you hit on every single point I was going to make.

      Admittedly, I was sympathetic at first to the Asian community and Suey Park (I mean, I know how pissed off my Jewish grandparents get anytime “everyone in the media” compares any trivial thing to the Holocaust), but after a little research it became apparent this campaign was just another arm of the outrage machine. And it’s sad, because Colbert has been an essential part of the progressive movement – basically holding up a mirror to Limbaugh, Fox & Friends and the establishment in general saying “this is how foolish you look…how foolish we all look.”

      But I think there’s a good number of people like the author who prefers Stewart because he goes for a more straight-forward more confrontational approach when calling people out. But Colbert, while essentially doing the same thing, hides behind an endearing character…and maybe that’s threatening to the outrage machine. I think they hate that we would love a guy that says these outrageous things, though sometimes racist people are quite likable…just ignorant.

      But then outrage generally requires a little willful ignorance. They like it when the enemy is clearly defined, and the Colbert character challenges that idea and ironically forces them to confront their own bigotry.

    • This Dude Gets It on April 11, 2014 at 1:38 pm

      Yes this is it. I just left a comment. But it’s all here. Thank you.

  5. TPearce on April 5, 2014 at 3:16 am

    For decades the American Indian Movement, the United Church of Christ, and the National Congress of American Indians have used displays like the one below to show the public how we feel about the Mascot issue. Recently Steven Colbert was taken to task for making the same comparison to shame the Washington Franchise.

  6. […] The Colbert Report and White Privilege […]

  7. Rick on April 5, 2014 at 9:19 am

    Excellent commentary and analysis. Bravo.

  8. mm on April 5, 2014 at 5:02 pm

    Great job ignoring the point of the segment: dan snyder amd the complete marginalization of native americans.

  9. Rubi on April 5, 2014 at 10:20 pm

    Thank you for writing this article. As a fan of Colbert, I clicked out of curiosity. Much like your daughter I think of him in the same vein as Stewart and don’t have a problem with his show. While I do agree that his show seriously lacks in diversity (as evidenced by the 12+ white guys that write for him), it hadn’t occurred to me that his audience could be low-key racists laughing at the subject of the jokes as opposed to the absurdity of it all.

    I’ve only thought of the show as far as my personal experience. I don’t follow him on Twitter, and as a minority, it is funny b/c who would believe this crap? Although, as your article has reminded me, people do believe this crap and it’s not funny.

    The question is then, do we police racially insensitive comedy? Or how do we open up the dialog so that people are willing to disengage with comedy that has real and painful consequences for others? Your article is a good start, but how would we get a fear-mongering misogynist to read it?

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